Philip K. Dick

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Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) was a Science Fiction author who wrote many influential novels. Throughout his life, he suffered—or benefitted—from severe hallucinations and a distorted view of reality. His novels reflect this, and his writing made him one of the most beloved and most critically acclaimed writers in the sci-fi genre.

Dick's characters typically spend much of his work wondering who they are, and whether their memories are real or fake. His stories often dealt with reality as illusion, Gnosticism, crazy people, drugged up people, people who seem crazy but are in fact drugged up, people who seem drugged up who are in fact crazy, government conspiracies, evil corporations, simulacra, Cosmic Entities, Eldritch Abominations, and enough combinations of the above that a permanent state of Mind-Screwed-ness becomes an occupational hazard for his readers. Twist endings and world-shattering revelations are also characteristic of his work, reflecting what can only be described as his rich inner life. Similarly a common theme in his works is a comparison between an objective "Real" reality and a subjective "Perceived" reality, debating the dividing line between the two and whether it is even worth contemplating the difference; a theme that reflected his own mental state.

He is known for writing some of the first Grey Goo stories and for writing about Post Modernism before it caught on in the academic world. He wrote serious existential and theological treatises within the context of futuristic science-fiction stories, when science-fiction novels were still in their infancy and considered as childish and peripheral by the majority of the literary world. He was one of the first authors to use fantasy and science-fiction to discuss taboo and socially risqué subjects, contemplating ideas that wouldn't be discussed in mainstream academia for decades. He mixed, deconstructed, and reconstructed philosophical and psychological ideology from everything from Carl Jung and his theories on collective consciousness through to Jean-Paul Sartre and his theories on individualism, constantly searching to define and challenge reality and the human mind. Some of his stories have been cited by big-name philosophers like Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek.

He wasn't particularly popular in the United States during most of his lifetime, but he gained a following in France among the intellectual set; his bizarre works meshed nicely with the postmodern philosophy then current in French academia.

Around 1974, Dick began to have odd revelations/hallucinations, culminating with direct contact with the entity formerly known as God. Many think he suffered from schizophrenia, a possibility Dick himself acknowledged and wrestled with. He became increasingly paranoid, at one point alleging that the KGB or the FBI stole documents from his house (he did, in fact, come home one night to find one of his filing cabinets forced open); later, he suggested that he might have broken into his own house and then forgotten about it. Many suspect his later novels are so confusing because he was trying to work out these problems in his writing.

He has a strong cult-following pan-globally which has been growing since his death in the early 1980s, encouraged by the relevance that a lot of his works have to modern day society. A lot of his more thought-provoking works continue to be the subject of analysis today, although exactly what that analysis can mean varies from person to person.

Many of his stories have been adapted into movies. Some turned out good (A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau) and some received a more mixed reception (Next, Paycheck, Impostor). His largest work is to date unpublished save a few excerpts - over 7000 pages of notes speculating on Greek philosophy, early Christianity, theology, mental illness, and the implicate structure of the universe itself. This work, titled the "Exegesis," spans thousands of years of metaphysics and occult literature. Written during the final few years of his life, it is either his greatest triumph of skeptical empiricism or a deep descent into incomprehensible insanity.

Works with their own pages:

For the newly prospective or particularly insane reader, as a lot of PKD's works were guided by the Reality Subtext of his life, reading his works in the order they were published (or written) from oldest to most recent gives probably the best overall understanding of the development of his mind and ideas over time.[1] However, be warned that trying to read them all in progressive succession may break your mind. Literally.

Philip K. Dick provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The Adjustment Bureau is based on a short story ("Adjustment Team") that was only a few pages long.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Other than Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (in which fame—suddenly and inexplicably lost—is a major plot element), there are few Philip K. Dick novels whose protagonists aren't overworked Every Man schlubs, the kind of character for whom Hollywood casts "character actors", not "leading men". Generally producers shy away from risking their millions while giving an average-looking person the most screen time.
    • In a glaring example, the very first line of Minority Report has Anderton think "I'm getting old. Old and fat and bald." In the movie, he's played by Tom Cruise.
  • After the End - One short story dealt with survivors of a nuclear war, trying to build an escape rocket, and buying supplies from a modern day general store owner.
    • Dick just loved post-apocalyptic scenarios. In "Autofac," a community of people is trying to wrest control of automated production facilities from the machines that run them in the aftermath of a nuclear war. In "The Days of Perky Pat," post-nuclear communities of adults sustained by CARE packages from the Martians obsessively play a "Life"-like game with elaborate to-scale game boards and a child's plastic Barbie-like doll named Perky Pat in an effort to relive their civilized lives while their children embrace a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In "If There Were No Benny Cemoli" a group of men and women who escaped the nuclear war on Earth by fleeing into space return after years of absence and try to take over, much to the chagrin of the survivors who've built up their own lifestyle in the intervening years. The list goes on and on.
    • Let's put it this way: if the novel is not set After the End, a Scavenger World, or Just Before the End you are looking at books based on Dick's own introspection (so most likely either A Scanner Darkly or VALIS).
  • And I Must Scream - there are a lot of short stories that have this component to them, although generally this is mercifully subverted in the full-length novels with the protagonist at least escaping from their reality into complete insanity. And yes, complete insanity is what qualifies as mercifully subverted in this case, because even with not much space to write them in, PKD wrote short stories revolving around Go Mad From the Isolation, The Aloner, and Fate Worse Than Death that could develop to And I Must Scream.
  • Arc Words - "The Empire Never Ended", which originally came from a dream he had when he was young; also "Ubik" in Ubik
    • Also: The Black Iron Fortress
  • Artificial Human - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Second Variety and many others
  • Author Stand In - Horselover Fat (a pun on Philip Dick) in VALIS, as well as Nicholas Brady in the discarded early draft that was posthumously published as Radio Free Albemuth. In both, however, he also includes a separate character named Philip K. Dick. Feel free to blather now.
    • Furthermore, in VALIS, there is a point where a third character finally snaps and tells Horselover Fat that Fat IS P.K.D. Up until that point in the narrative (told through Fat's eyes) the reader assumes they are two different characters. It is simultaneously revealed to Fat, as well as the reader, causing the reader to feel as schizophrenic as the author/character. PKD seems to disappear from the plot, or meld with Fat, after this revelation.
  • Broken Aesop / Family-Unfriendly Aesop (or maybe Misaimed Fandom, Your Mileage May Vary) - Oh lord, Electric Sheep. While Dick considered artificial people the most horrific excess of a degenerate society obsessed with escaping reality, many readers came to sympathize with the robots, including the people who adapted it to film. One critic went so far as to compare Deckard to "A Nazi measuring noses" & the general consensus among AI advocates is that if truly intelligent robots ever appear, the book will probably be looked back upon in a similar manner as Birth of a Nation is today.
    • Considering that the book's ideology kinda centered around the difference between appearance of a thing and the actuality of its identity (emotion/compassion apparently being the deontological decider for humanity), you could argue that it's a subversion of the whole "If it talks and speaks like a human it is human." The idea that identity is interchangeable and variable depending on perspective is kinda a driving point, where you have humans creating a situation of absolute dystopia where the pinnacle of human technology is perfectly suited to the environment it was created in (i.e. the robots being ideally detached from the horror of earth in order to 'live' there), and humans dig their own graves by undermining reality. It also tends to try to highlight the difference (and if there is actually any) between sentience and programmed routine, and what constitutes self-awareness (jury's still out on that one). However, the fact that Dick wrote this while high on amphetamines could just meant he had a really bad trip.
      • Also, Blade Runner? Wow, talk about complete inversions of the subject material (we get it, everyone has feelings!)
    • And also considering that in some of his stories robots are the ones that display human traits and the humans are just unbelievable bastards, you could argue he was just using the good ol' Mind Screw
    • May also be a perpetrator of a few forgotten aesops, although (again) these may be more Mind Screw.
  • Broken Masquerade - Time Out of Joint, Ubik and others. Many a reader has been left unsure exactly which masquerade has been broken and whether it's really a masquerade at all.
    • Basically any story (nearly all of them) where the protagonist either a) has their reality completely deconstructed, b) has had a psychotic break/is on drugs (and hence is living in a 'fake' reality) and doesn't know it, or c) had the unfortunate destiny of being a main character in a Philip Dick book (you just know good things aren't coming their way). Mercilessly used, chewed out, and tortured in The Game-Players of Titan (poor, poor Pete...), and hilariously screwed with in We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
    • In Cosmic Puppets this is played with extensively while the protagonist is gradually having his reality disassembled around him while he desperately tries to grip on to anything that might sustain his sanity. He is literally pulled to the brink of a nervous breakdown when two people with their eyes closed walk straight through the people he is trying to talk to before moving through a house wall. It doesn't help when the seemingly Only Sane Man in the vicinity says (paraphrased), "Of course, it's perfectly normal. You're not mentally ill, are you?"
  • Chekhov's Gun - Paycheck is a deconstruction of the concept.
  • Do-Anything Robot - Sales Pitch is about a Do-Anything Robot that serves as its own salesman and touts its ability to do absolutely anything, so you don't have to do anything at all.
  • Downer Ending - Many. Second Variety, Sales Pitch, Faith of Our Fathers...
    • Occasionally a Bittersweet Ending may be evident, but you'll never find a Happily Ever After on PKD's side of science-fiction.
      • Except for his short story "The Defenders." The Eastern and Western Blocs built robots called "leadies" to carry out World War III as proxies while humanity waited out the nuclear holocaust in underground shelters. The leadies promptly turned against their masters' wishes by stopping the war, cleaning up all the damage, and rebuilding—although they didn't plan on telling the humans it was over until both sides were sick enough of living underground to be willing to accept peace. At the end, the spokes-leady tells a group of Americans and Russians who'd come out to explore that the species is almost ready to unite -- just a few more years—following which humanity's achievements will be "unimaginably great." The leadies, at least, expected our "ever after" to be happy.
  • Fisher Kingdom - The various worlds of Eye In the Sky started twisting visitors to match their worldviews. Because each "world" was in fact inside someone's head in a sort of shared hallucination.
  • Genre Savvy - the majority of Philip Dick's protagonists are paranoid enough to consider the possibility that they are unreal constructs of a hallucination, subjects of an experiment of a higher power, or constantly slipping between alterable states of reality. Exhibit A: in Cosmic Puppets the male protagonist returns to his home town to find that what he remembered never existed and the first thing he thinks of is the possibility that someone implanted false memories into his mind in order to manipulate him for nefarious causes... unfortunately he isn't Genre Savvy enough to listen to his first instinct that he should leave the town before he gets stuck there.
  • Gnosticism - Philip K. Dick is a textbook case. Questions about the fundamental nature of self and reality, personal revelations from God, and an overbearing sense of existential paranoia. Philip K. Dick was explicitly influenced by the Nag Hammadi, which had been recently discovered and translated towards the end of his life.
  • God Is Evil - Considering his obsession with Gnosticism, this isn't surprising. "Faith Of Our Fathers" was the first really well-known God Is Evil SF story.
    • Mostly it comes in the form of either "the Demiurge suddenly got interested in your life", or "the complete/higher God was looking the other way when the Demiurge decided to Kick the Dog" (with the Dog in this case being one of PKD's protagonists).
    • By the time we get to the appearance of "The Pink Light", the manifestation of Sophia (in different forms), and alternate interpretations of the Torah (which are then used to validate multiple levels of existence), it becomes "Aion Telos is trying to help but can't get through to humans because Yaldaboath is blocking the entrance to the Iron Fortress." That said, what we're really talking about here is the intervention of the Advocate versus the Adversary, because the Godhead itself tends to be either too bored to pay attention or... well, broken.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: all humans and sentient creatures have both redeemable and damnable qualities (with generally more time spent musing on the damnable). There is no black and white, only mixed shades of grey, and if you think you've finally come across someone who fits into either a pure white or black category, then you are probably about to find out something about them that dilutes them to grey again. The only exception from this rule are those that are manifestations of the demiurge, and even then the psychosis backing the Complete Monster always has a dimension of understanding to it that makes the reader unable to label them as definitively evil.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters - they really, really are.
  • Intangible Time Travel - Paycheck, with its "timescope"
    • A lot of the short stories play around with the ideas of causality and time loops. At least one has an older version of the protagonist try to kill his younger self.
  • Lighter and Fluffier: His short stories in comparison to his full length novels. Mostly because the short stories tend to have less introspection and dissection of the human condition.
  • Mad Oracle - A Real Life one, according to some.
  • Mandatory Twist Ending - yes, there is going to be a twist, but if Philip Dick doesn't want you to have any idea of what the twist is going to be, you are likely to be hit over the back of the head by it while it crawls out of a hole from another dimension.
  • Meaningful Name - Palmer Eldritch, Felix Buckman in Flow My Tears, etc.
    • In A Maze Of Death, you have the subverted dumb-blonde "Susie Smart", the lying hypochondriac "Dr. Babble", and the Jerkass bully "Ignatz Thugg".
  • Mechanical Evolution: In "Second Variety," when the United Nations is losing a war with the Soviet Union, they create automated factories to produce robotic "claws" to fight back. The claws later self-produce more effective designs which mimic human beings and infiltrate the human ranks.
  • Mental Story: Eye in the Sky takes place in a sort of shared mental world, with the current most-dominant personality warping it to their prejudices and worldview.
  • Mind Control Conspiracy: Himself, and also in VALIS.
  • Mind Screw
    • Could be argued to have if not invented, at least cemented the trope in popular media.
    • His short stories tend to be saner and less weird, even the one about a religious movement of people who use a special electronic box to empathetically link to a religious figure who is currently undergoing an exhausting journey. Supposedly. In fact, some of them are humorous ("The War with the Fnools", in which aliens attempt to exterminate the race by disguising themselves as human - if not for the fact they're midgets).
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: A meta example. All of Dick's novels have rather cryptic names that relate to the soul core of the book and the concepts it is trying to relate, usually with an implied association about the kind of suffering the protagonists will go through, or the depressing reality they will have to face (and you can be assured that they will suffer through it). And then there is one book called "A Maze Of Death." ...Guess how many protagonists die within the first 24 hours? Guess how many times they die within the span of the book?
  • Ontological Mystery
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Due to the incredibly dark, reality-challenging, and ideologically expansive nature of most of his works, it is almost impossible to create a faithful adaptation of one of PKD's full novels. The entire novel simply can't be pulled down into a 3-hour or less movie. For this reason, a lot of his shorter stories rather than full-length novels are made into movies: Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck etc. There are only two movies based on his actual novels that were well-made and critically-acclaimed: Blade Runner, based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, which, even on a severely curtailed script Ridley Scott travelled through Pre- and Post-production Hell with; and the A Scanner Darkly adaptation, which was incredibly faithful to the book but mostly because A) the director was incredibly creative, and B) it is set Twenty Minutes Into the Future. God help the director who takes it into his mind to tackle VALIS.
  • Psychic Powers - Precogs being one of the the most common, as in "The Minority Report". Ubik centers on a group of anti-psychics, people whose presence blunts the efficacy of psi powers—useful against terrorists who happen to be psychic.
  • Reality Warper: many, with their powers constantly becoming more intricate and elaborate throughout the decades of P.K.D's writing career until you get to The Divine Invasion, at which point you may need a pen, paper and a flow chart.
  • Robot War - His most famous story of this kind, "Second Variety", was made into the film Screamers.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy - Minority Report, both versions. In Paycheck the government's discovery of a future-seeing device causes it to bring about the disasters the machine prophecies.
  • Shown Their Work - many of his stories, but especially V.A.L.I.S.; I hope you know your Taoism, Gnosticism and mythology well. Some working knowledge of Koine Greek doesn't hurt either.
  • They Look Like Us Now - Screamers with human looking robots. As well as many stories with artificial human-looking robots or aliens, some who have no idea that they are not human - an some who are terrified that they are.
    • The War with the Fnools ALMOST goes this way - the eponymous fnools, who resemble human midgets, get taller and taller when exposed to human vice (more specifically, tobacco and alcohol). The protagonists despair - until the last fnool gets drunk and keeps drinking, making them inhumanly tall and easier to pick out of a crowd once more.
  • Up the Real Rabbit Hole - Characters in his books are frequently discovering the world in which they live to be a simulation or otherwise not entirely real. An obvious source of inspiration for The Matrix, along with The Invisibles by Grant Morrison.
  • Watering Down - One of the minor characters in Eye in the Sky is a hostess at a club who waters down her own alcoholic drinks (as a large amount of her job is drinking with customers) so as to not get drunk herself.
  • What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic - He wrote entire books that resemble extended, fictional meditations on Judeo-Christian and Gnostic semiotics. The Divine Invasion comes to mind especially.
  • What Do You Mean It Wasn't Made on Drugs? - He was known for finishing many of his novels in less than a week, a feat he usually achieved by taking amphetamines and writing non-stop. A Scanner Darkly, however, which is about drug addicts, was written after he became sober.
    • Fictional drugs play significant roles in several other stories, such as Can-D (which tranfers your mind into a Barbie-like doll named Perky Pat) and Chew-Z (an afterlife-simulating hallucinogen that allows the title character to control your perception) from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human? - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    • Also What Measure Is A Human - pick a book, any book...
  1. with the added advantage that it prepares the reader for the continuously escalating levels of Mind Screw and paranoia that occur in his later books